Emotional & Mental Health for Widows

Me, Myself, and I

by Paula Renninger

The alarm bursts through the silence to tell me to get up and start another day. I was not asleep anyway. I do not want to start another day. But, I hear the cat meow for breakfast, feel the dog jump off the bed, and know the kids will need breakfast. Once again, I drag myself out of bed and mindlessly dress myself for another day of the lonely grind.

I gently awaken my children and encourage them to get ready for school. Through groans and grunts they stumble around getting dressed, brushing their teeth and whining that they do not want pancakes for breakfast. I tell them pop-tarts are not nutritious and they need to eat the pancakes. The cat is still meowing. I open his food and put it on the floor for him. The dog is patiently pacing, waiting for me to take him outside to relieve himself.

I grab a coat and walk outside with the dog. The brisk fall air smacks me in the face and I look around. The world is doing its routine. The sun is rising. The darkness is fading. The birds are tweeting. The lawn is covered in leaves, fog, and dew. The dog is sniffing around and sounds from the morning routine inside are muffled to me.

I sigh. This is hard. Solo parenting, solo providing, solo traveling through this journey called life. I did not sign up for this. And I am not sure I want to keep doing it. I close my eyes to this reality. I am startled by someone screaming “Mom!”

Sadly, losing our spouse does not give us a pass to lose ourselves. Regardless of whether or not you have children, grief does not mean we dissolve into self-neglect. Sure, we are allowed to sit on the couch in our jammies staring at nothing or crying or screaming — but we cannot stay there.

Why, you ask?

Because you are alive.

You are a part of the community called the human race. You must go on. You must move forward. You must find you and take care of you! No one else is here to do it for you. And, even when your spouse was here, they could not do it for you either.

You have always been responsible for your own health, needs, and happiness. Losing your spouse does not negate you from these responsibilities.

So how do you do it?

Do the next thing.

What thing?

Do the next thing.

It truly is that simplistic. Do the next thing. Whatever it is.

Wake up

Turn of the alarm

Get out of bed

Use the bathroom

Get dressed

Make coffee

Drink coffee

Brush your teeth

Just do the next thing in your routine of daily life habits.

Grief does not leave us. We will never be “over it”. Grief changes our brain. We are rewired, so to speak. I am not a psychiatrist or a doctor, but I know — you know — our brain changes with the trauma of losing our spouse. We cannot process words, think clearly, understand others, sleep, motivate, or simply live.

But our brain has an amazing ability to heal and be rewired. And one way is through doing the next thing. Simply waking up each day and just doing the next thing. Every time you follow through on doing the next thing, you’re changing the structure of your brain. Within weeks, your brain will learn these steps as part of your regular routine, and after a few months or years, you will find that you have moved forward with your grief.

Our brains love routine. Routines help us to know what will come next. We are most comfortable in situations where we know exactly how the events are going to unfold, and so the familiarity of a routine feels safe and sure.

Losing our spouse was a situation that we had no idea was going to happen, and it felt very unsafe and unsure. We no longer feel comfortable in life. That is why grief is so devastating to our well-being. I cannot promise you that life will never bring another tragedy, but I do know how we move forward to thriving is by doing the next thing. The repetitive, mundane motion of doing the next thing helps to rewire our brains. Doing the next thing releases us from having to figure out the future, because the future is the next thing. Just doing the next thing relieves us from having to remember, because the next thing is always before us.

I must caution that some routines hurt us rather than help us. For example, if you “always” went to your in-laws for Sunday dinner but now that routine leaves you in uncontrollable tears, it is time to not do that thing! Remember, you are and always have been responsible for you. Roles and tasks you may have done as a wife serve no purpose now. Even as you move forward with grief, you may find that tasks you did day 1, week 1, month 1, or year 1 are no longer relevant or helpful now. That’s okay! Just look at your moment and do the next thing.

Paula Renninger lost her college sweetheart after 25 years of marriage and three children. She strives to spread the love they shared with others.

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Knowing there are women who have not only survived what I was going through, but were also thriving and moving forward in their lives.
— MSC Wister® (Widow + Sister)